Gender Politics in New Jersey: The Shape of Things to Come?

A story out of New Jersey likely has many in America wishing for a time machine – for an escape into a (hopefully) near future where we can put race, gender, and sexual politics behind us once and for all.

Rachel Pepe, a 13-year-old student at Thorne Middle School in Middletown, New Jersey, has been told by school officials that she will not be allowed to return to school if she continues to dress, and identify as, a girl. Born Brian Pepe, Rachel struggled for years with her gender identity. She reportedly suffered from stress-induced seizures, panic attacks, and severe depression before finally coming out publicly as transgender. The relief, her family says, was obvious not only in her disposition but in her physical health.

Gender PoliticsDespite the relief that came from embracing this deeply personal truth, Rachel’s school has said in no uncertain terms that she will be required to use the name that appears on her birth certificate, as well as “dress and behave” like a boy. Despite attempts to find a middle ground, no compromise has, as yet, been reached. Rachel’s mother, Angela Peters, has suggested to school leadership that Rachel be allowed to use the nurse’s office bathroom, so as not to make her fellow students uncomfortable, but that solution was apparently dismissed out of hand.

Another solution, and the one that, at this point, Peters seems to consider the best fix for Rachel’s predicament, would be to enroll her in a private school that would have a more enlightened stance on gender politics. The family’s barrier, of course, are the tuition costs, for which Middletown School District is unwilling to provide assistance. What’s certain is that Rachel will not be returning as Brian, her mother says, because “the depression will start again.”

Legal recourse

New Jersey has laws on the books that protect individuals from gender-related discrimination, but applying those laws to a public school setting seems to be uncharted territory for the state. However, Michael Silverman, of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, has suggested that “the family would have a strong case against discrimination.”

Rachel’s situation, while uncommon, is not unprecedented. Other states, including New York, have made accommodations for students who identify as transgender. As recently as February, the Maine Supreme Court made a ruling in favor of transgender students, indicating that they were entitled to appropriate accommodations in public schools. Similar rulings took place in Colorado and California as well.

Where do we go from here?

Rachel’s situation is almost certain to become a lightning rod for questions of gender and sexual politics in the US. Whatever resolution the involved parties arrive at, it’s all but certain that this will shed new light on the state of transgender acceptance. “If this helps one person,” says Angela Peters, “I can be happy about that.”

That a public institution – one that ostensibly exists to prepare children for a happy and productive life in the outside world – would seek to dictate the gender with which one of their students most closely identifies – is a curious thing. Transgender individuals are already subjected to enough inner turbulence, not to mention ridicule from their peers, that receiving it also from school officials should be a wake up call for us all. Nobody is asking the Middletown School District to personally identify with, or even to understand, Rachel Pepe’s very personal journey. But allowing students to discover their true selves – including, and perhaps especially, their gender identity  - should be one of the very purposes of our primary education system.

While rather few of us can identify with Rachel on a personal level, it’s clear that the psychological implications of her shifting gender identity is both complicated and mysterious. While it may seem a strange thing for society to applaud one’s discovery that they were born into the wrong body, informing them that their hard-won revelation is invalid is nothing short of inhuman.

Most of us were taught in school that we could be anything we wanted to be when we grew up. If you attend Middletown School District, however, you may just learn that there are certain strings attached.

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Image Credit: Flickr via Creative Commons